The Wild West evokes thirst, dust and desiccation – but not to an adventurous swimmer. Watched over by statuesque saguaro cacti, OSS Founder Kate Rew spends five days journeying down the milky green water of the Apache, Canyon and Saguaro Lakes of the Sonoran desert. It’s otherworldly, but also brings her back to childhood summers spent playing in rivers. Grab a bourbon and submerge yourself in this OSS long read.
Monday, January 28, 2019
It’s the last afternoon of a week swimming through the Arizona desert. Like fanatics (but calmer) seven other swimmers and I are ambling down an empty tarmacked road from our ranch looking for one last swim. The thick slick of new tarmac corners desert and dust, and on the ridge to our right saguaro (sah-wah-ros) cacti stand tall like wise elders on watch, observing our passage with a calm and palpable presence.
Our swimwear has dried out in the heat after this morning’s swim, and is now layered under sun hats and towels. We smell of sunshine and river water. Conversation rises and falls in a rhythm made out of all of us.
We branch off the road and pick our way down a sandy track, deeply fissured by storm water. We’re looking for the place one of us saw wild mustangs drinking at dusk. Plotted within the Universal Set of Swimmers everyone on this trip would fall within the circle of ‘Loves the outdoors’, but the subsection of us on the move now – those wanting to share an experience with mustangs – all intersect within a second circle ‘Has a poet’s heart’.
The Salt River winds its way through the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and is dammed, creating a chain of lakes we have spent five days swimming down: Apache Lake, Canyon Lake and Saguaro Lake. The landscape is similar to the Grand Canyon, with shorter canyon walls. After five days in the lakes we’re hunting for an impromptu dip on the stretch where the river empties out of the reservoir system and flows freely on.
We reach the river. It is clear and green, swirling with river weeds, backed by high reeds. On the shore a sloping tree, the bark as twisted as a wrung-out towel, dangles a knotted rope swing: the universal sign of a good local swim spot. In the distance there are red rock buttes and blue skies. A young fisherman is standing in the shallows catching crayfish: turning the rocks over underwater, hunting the mud with his fingers, dislodging algae that floats in clumps downstream, then dropping live black crayfish into the pockets of his board shorts.
The water’s siren call might not be audible to everybody, but to us it’s compelling. We strip off and leap in, under the watchful eye of our guide Maryls, off-duty but still in her neon orange safety T-shirt. “Come on Maryls, get in!” everyone cries, “wash the stink off!” (one of her own, inimitable expressions).
The water is silky, warm, but cool to our sunbaked skin. There’s an eddy here: the river flows strongly down our side of the river, and then pushes back up the other.
Instinctively we each push across the current with a few strong breaststrokes, swim upstream, then turn ourselves into the flow for a quick float back down. Nobody questions this, nobody suggests it, nobody varies from it. This isn’t one of our ‘organised’ swims, this is just because we could fit in one more swim. We swim up, we float down, we repeat. I used to do this kind of messing about in rivers when I was a kid. The pleasures of it now are as compelling as they ever were, the happiness it provokes in us – an at least averagely complex group of grown ups – as simple and complete.
On the shore a sloping tree, the bark as twisted as a wrung-out towel, dangles a knotted rope swing: the universal sign of a good local swim spot. In the distance there are red rock buttes and blue skies. Instinctively we each push across the current with a few strong breaststrokes, swim upstream, then turn ourselves into the flow for a quick float back down. Nobody questions this, nobody suggests it, nobody varies from it.
I have loved river swimming since I grew up doing it on my family’s farm in Devon, England. Before we were 10 my siblings and I took to doing adventures from one end of the land to the other. Those early trips, navigated with common sense and no adults, encapsulated everything I still seek from swims today. They were full of adventure and joy, of chance and challenge: an action packed mile and a half of water that was variously deep, slow and scenic, with obstacles both real and imagined (the waterfalls and rapids were there; the eels weren’t).
I still rely on swimming to connect to the part of me that is feral – a wordless, wild state that is an antidote to my landlocked over-thinking. I escape domestication when I escape my clothes: instead of being outside of a landscape looking in, I become part of things. This is one of the reasons I love to swim wherever I go. For me one of the challenges of travelling is getting there and yet not fully arriving, as my preoccupations have come along with my baggage. Swimming has a way of washing the mind clear.
It also, quite literally, takes me off the beaten track and helps me get under the skin of a place, connecting with people through shared experience not the tourist industry.
In Mexico, based on the advice of a pump attendant, a friend and I took a path through some dusty, unpromising shrub behind a petrol station to find an underground river, a cenote, and spent the afternoon jumping in with some locals. In Istanbul for the annual race, I made my way up the Bosphorus on a packed ferry with 200 Turks, all of us wearing nothing but swimwear and goggles, taking route advice about how to pick our route through the swirling whirlpools below. In Thailand and the Scilly Isles I stripped off for full moon swims in phosphorescence, waving my hands around like merlin as the waves lit up in the night. In thermal pools or ‘hot pots’ around the Eastern Sierras in California and all over Iceland my two boys (now six and seven) my husband and I had good times with strangers that you characteristically only with really good friends – sat in hot pots just chilling out and chatting, but with people we had only just met. Water has a way of doing that to people: of connecting you without standard social tick points generated by class, place or career, of taking you to a wry place of humour and heartfelt delight.
In Arizona swimming takes me under the skin of the place before we’ve even got wet. I have been before – a Thelma and Louise-style road-trip but with less fugitive action – and while the landscape from that trip is burned into my brain, I have no recollection of the people we met. This time I have a much more vivid insight into local life within hours of arriving.
We are staying in a family-run ranch, and, as out-of-staters, greeted with some curiosity – to find common ground, the managers, Sean A’Lee and John try and work out where we live in relation to Gravesend, where Pocohontas is buried. She is John’s distant grandmother. It is pouring with rain down when we arrive and water is falling off the porch in long lines – weather you never expect to see in the desert. After dinner the ranch staff come in whooping, carrying a tarantula big enough to cover my face in a clear washed-out catering tub. “We found it because it’s coming in out of the rain!” they holler. This is after dinner entertainment, Arizona-style.
A side plate is being used as a makeshift lid, and it slips and skids this way and that as the tarantula-in-a-tub is lowered in front of one guest and the other. It nicely underlines that what is ahead of us is real. The holiday we have come on isn’t boutique wild west, it’s just the Wild West – however nice the accommodation is (and it’s pretty nice: candlewick bedspreads, noisy air con and all) the key reason for it being chosen was its proximity to the canyon lakes. We can almost smell the water as we wind our way to our separate cabins – and I’m not the only one wondering how many tarantulas have come on in out of the rain as I slip gingerly between the covers of my bed.
The next day fourteen of us gather on pontoon boats at Saguaro Lake for our first swim. We look like swimmers if you put swimmers in a hall of mirrors: short, tall, large, thin. Our swims are taking place slap bang in the middle of Tonto National Forest. Tonto is Arizona as most of us picture it: a badland of sandstone, desert, cacti and shrubs. A muddy red-brown, the canyons, ravines, monoliths, gullies, tuffs, spires and crevasse read like a conveyor belt of ways rock can be shaped by wind and rain. Summers are so brutal here even the ranch horses go on holiday, to the mountains. They have arrived back at the ranch just ahead of us, now it is cooler.
The pontoon boats belong to a high school scene of an American spring break film – they look like floating bits of jetty with an outboard motor, foam bench seating and build in space for two giant wheeled cool boxes. A black helicopter chops above us, bearing the legend SHERIFF in gold. Saguaro cacti are everywhere. So far, so Arizona: the only huge deviation from the way most of us pictured it is rain.
We undress, slip into the water and make its acquaintance. It is clean, warm, but opaque and milky green. I am surprised that I can see nothing beneath me, not even my hands. I feel sorry for anything trapped: five year olds in school classrooms, animals in zoos, water in reservoirs. I start to make my peace with this river being contained rather than free-flowing, focusing my attention on the sight-seeing above the water, the never ending landscape of canyon.
We swim close to the edges of the steep sides, the weather-worn rock a reddish brown, with scrapes of silver-green lichen that look like they’ve been applied with a painter’s palate knife. I am torn between wanting to swim close to the rocks to watch them loom above me from under my front-crawling arm, and being worried that the uncommon rain might mean my children end up motherless, as I die pinned to the bottom of the canyon by a boulder that falls.
With arm over arm, breath after breath, the rhythm of front crawl works its magic. I feel like a rag doll at first after my flight; flippy floppy and weak. But gradually my body rearticulates itself as part-fish: flexing my way through the water without sound or splash. My attention moves away from it’s small discontents and fears and out into the landscape. Bald eagles circle in the cloud-laden sky. We get up close to herons that look like prehistoric pterodactyls and look out for great horned owls, ‘the only thing that’ll take out a skunk as they have no sense of smell’ says Mark. Spider webs the size of fishing nets appear thrown-over whole bushes and attached to the canyon walls as if to contain possible rockfalls. Turkey vultures sit on grey weather bleached wood, their heads tiny, red, ugly and bald.
With arm over arm, breath after breath, the rhythm of front crawl works its magic. I feel like a rag doll at first after my flight; flippy floppy and weak. But gradually my body rearticulates itself as part-fish: flexing my way through the water without sound or splash. Bald eagles circle in the cloud-laden sky. We get up close to herons that look like prehistoric pterodactyls... Spider webs the size of fishing nets appear thrown-over whole bushes and attached to the canyon walls as if to contain possible rockfalls.
We swim for an hour or so, stop for lunch, and then in the afternoon, swim again, covering about 5k a day. And that is how, over the next five days, we work ourselves down the Salt River Canyon. There is an easy rhythm to time passing – like a ski or cycling holiday, but not so alpha. We swim for a few hours, we eat picnic lunches on the banks – banquet-size affairs of beans, wraps, tortilla chips in huge sacks, guacamole and salsa – we swim again (wishing we hadn’t eaten so much) and overnight we go back to the ranch and hang out on the porch, play a card game Maryls teaches us (Peruvian Poker) until it’s time to get in again.
Cacti are our constant companions. Strangely human, they stand proud, arms aloft, lined up like soldiers on a ridge. But it’s the outliers that we stop for, the ones that seem to require a ‘hello’. The jumpers: who stand high on the walls, teetering on the edge, like any moment they might leap off and fall. And the crazy ones who couldn’t keep it together, who just couldn’t conform, whose arms and legs couldn’t grow like the others and stick out akimbo.
All types of swimmers are represented on this trip, including the accidental swimmers. Michael is just here because his partner loves swimming, and he loves her, so he gets in (in flippers, to help him speed up). Michelle and Amanda are university friends taking a break from work and/or family. Karen is here because it’s her favourite type of holiday: she’s been on 20 Swimtrek holidays so far. Emma and Jackie are both single and “wanted an experience, and this seemed a whole lot easier than going to Burning Man”. The average demographic on a SwimTrek trip is a 52 year old female CEO.
How many outdoor swimmers there are in the world now no one has counted, but from Pakistan to Poland, Canada to Chile, South Africa to Australia, people have gone crazy for it. Over the last decade the UK have had the strongest resurgence of all, with The Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) the leader of a tribe that doesn’t follow. It appeals to the renegades, the mavericks, the deserters of normality. Which is perhaps why, when we swim past the cacti, it’s always the jumpers that we stop for, and the crazy misshapen cacti doing their own dances on the canyon walls.
Bringing us all together are our guides: the trip is led by Marlys from Oregon and seconded by Mark from Montana. Marlys looks like a cross between Martina Navratilova and the most rebellious girl in my school swim team, one of those extra alive people with an attractiveness that is less to do with facial symmetry and more to do with magnetism. Maryls suggests we experience this place with grace and gratitude, and has a dry sense of humour that makes my week. On day two our destination is chosen on the basis of it’s ‘somewhat reduced risk of electrical storms’ (lightning and water really don’t mix). On day three – when it’s still raining, and our fingers are permanently wrinkled by wetness both in and out of the water – the flat-pan suggestion ‘Shall we go back to the ranch, play poker and do day-drinking?’ is so not what we were expecting from our swim holiday it restores us.
While Maryls is making her way through a personal project to swim 100 lakes in Oregon, Mark comes from the sportier side of the movement. He is a big bear of a man in shorts, with the young-looking skin you often see in open water swimmers and outdoorsmen: smooth, bouncy and hairless, seemingly permanently warm. The chair of Open Water for US Masters swimming, Mark gives us technique advice on stroke analysis night, but also gets that we’re here to enjoy more than to self-improve. He rounds off comprehensive stroke breakdown with the wisdom: ‘Say to yourself, I’m going to think of this for ten strokes, and then I’m going to look for bald eagles.’
[Outdoor swimming] appeals to the renegades, the mavericks, the deserters of normality. Which is perhaps why, when we swim past the cacti, it’s always the crazy misshapen cacti doing their own dances on the canyon walls that we stop for
Over the week we are divided into three groups with different colour hats, based on speed, and watched over by the two guides.
As a whole we ease into being three parts of one aquatic pod, our very own peculiar organism, fed occasionally from the boats with gummy bears and water bottles (one rule: squirt don’t suck).
I’m in the middle swim group, the mellow yellows, who like to swim for a bit, then sit on rocks for a bit, sprint for a bit, then bob about for a bit, sounding like cowboys in a shootout who’ve bolted for cover. We disappear into creeks and shout into caves to hear our echoes bounce back – or at least try to, when the darkening water and chill from the shadows doesn’t lead us to sprint back out, fearful of water snakes (like the eels of my childhood, or Jaws in the sea, dealing with the terror of water creatures you’ve invented yourself is something most swimmers deal with).
We embrace the warmth of the water which, at 23-29 degrees across the week, means that all but one of us (a slender triathlete) can swim in costumes, trunks or bikinis, with no need for neoprene. The last swim I did in England was the Hurly Burly in North Wales, the same day I left: a 10k tide assisted autumn swim in rough Welsh weather, with firepits to start and hot chocolate to finish, and the bit in the middle a race to keep enough blood in your arms, toes and fingers. Here the water is kinder, calmer, and there are none of those worries.
On day three we go to the furthest lake, Apache Lake, the one the most dramatic canyon walls. It’s a long drive down Lost Dutchman Highway, the central reservation a single line of upright cacti. It is raining, as it has been for three days now, I am told this is more rain than they’ve had in 28 years. The highway is empty, and as the cacti absorb water they are expanding faster than accordions. Looking out through the wipers we could be the last living people: pioneers for a new race. Arizona is beginning to look a lot like the Lake District: greener and greener.
The last section of the road to Apache Lake is a 12-mile dirt track, and as we descend every signpost that we pass has bullet holes in it: it’s used for target practice, apparently, mobile drive-by target practice. In-between the place names (Superstition Highway, Burnt Corral Campground, Tortilla Flat), the bourbons, the rodeo clowns (the ranch-hand has a portfolio career) and this dirt track we could not be anywhere but Arizona, but the rain is still getting us down. Yes, there may be bull wrestlers, Trump supporters, ghost towns and cowboys who say ‘London, England – that’s overseas right?’. But we were still expecting heat. So there’s a grumpiness about us, a wit’s end, as we board our pontoon boat and sit in our garbage bag dresses, rain puddling in our laps, for the third day running.
Reaching the water-in point we undress together, a now familiar group dance where we get naked in close proximity without invading each other’s privacy. The guides apply Vaseline under the straps of our costumes with surgical gloved hands, to stop our suits chaffing, and we pass around a small spray bottle of baby shampoo and water (once rinsed, this stops goggles steaming up). And then we’re in.
Or I am in. My swim buddy, Emma, is still standing on the boat, peeved and reluctant. I have known Emma for 20 years or more and have never once seen her in a bad mood, but she’s a sun lover and she’s in one now. “Do you think you might cheer up once you’re in, Emma?” I call back once in the water. “I will not!” she says, but then scissor steps in. And you couldn’t say why or how it happened but it’s remote out here, so remote it makes no sense (as swimmer Natasha Brooks observed in her film Blue Hue) to put anything between our skin and the water. So before long not only is the rain forgotten but the mellow yellows are all naked, and still swimming, quietly jubilant, smiling to ourselves underwater.
The water has become our terrain, and we are at home in it. And over the week, rain aside, we experience what we came for: deep and vivid experiences that feel like “Arizona”. One evening one jetlagged couple see 30 havelinas (a cross between pigs and wild boar) grazing outside their cabin in the middle of the night. Another night Big Ron from the Ranch comes to see who wants to go riding with him the next morning. Big Ron is big, so big he can wrestles bulls to the ground with his big, bare hands. He gets his iphone out and shows us pictures of their heads under his arms. Another night we go hunting on the wall outside looking for disco critters: scorpions that glow under ultraviolet torchlight.
And then just like that on day four, the rain is gone, and we get to be hot and dry, the image we came for. We have a cowboy cook out by the fire under the Milky Way, which we can finally see.
The final night is “gala night”, where mutual praise and certificates are given. If we find our ranch hosts unusual, with their spiders and way of orientating where we live in England via Gravesend, they find us just as extraordinary: the ranch manager John can’t believe we came to Arizona to swim. “We don’t understand this fascination with water and what you do to relax,” he says, admiringly.
The water has become our terrain, and we are at home in it. And over the week, rain aside, we experience what we came for: deep and vivid experiences that feel like “Arizona”. Big Ron is big, so big he can wrestles bulls to the ground with his big, bare hands. He gets his iphone out and shows us pictures of their heads under his arms. Another night we go hunting on the wall outside looking for disco critters: scorpions that glow under ultraviolet torchlight.
Swimmers are just the latest in a long line of pioneers to make a home here, and for a split second we feel a bit like each other’s opposite doubles, each set admiring each other for the same qualities: maverick, courageous, self-sufficient or tough. John has made us all trophies: some of those precious river worn pebbles, with the swimmer in the SwimTrek logo cut out of steel and stuck on. It’s the kind of thing my father would make.
On the last day my friends and I get up before dawn to climb the hill behind the ranch and watch the sun come up – the first miraculous day where this is possible. Each cabin has a decking, and some of the chairs are strung with impromptu washing lines, dangling bright coloured costumes. We sit on the top of the ridge and wait in an acoustic frizz of birds and insects. And then it comes up, scattering sunbeams as wide and perfect as the sun rays on the Arizonan flag.
A few hours later and we’re in the water again. The mood has changed on the water – it’s Friday and around the jetty and on the water you can feel the weekenders coming. It already feels more recreational, less austere. We’re back in Saguaro Lake, the most accessible of the three, with the most recreation on it. For the first time we do not have the water to ourselves. Underwater I can hear the high whine of speed boats in the water, and see wake surfers. Earlier in the week I fear being too close to canyon walls in case some rock fell from it, now I hug them. “You’ve got to imagine it’s a zoo at weekends,” says Mark.
Our lunch beach is already occupied: the riders of two jet skis are sat on camping chairs having a beer and a smoke, chilling their feet in the shallows. On the opposite bank there are people jumping off rocks. A little way upstream Foreigner, White Snake and Def Leppard are being played on a boat with an American flag. We are part of the beach trash: a funfair of neon costumes and bright orange, yellow and pink hats.
After food we head across to a cave full of reflections, and hover there via a rock with huge finger holds. The sun is out and I breaststroke down the river with my head turned sideways, water as my pillow, looking under the water so I can see my arm in the green with the light shafts coming through to it. We float on our backs and look up, for the last time, at the canyon walls.
A little way upstream Foreigner, White Snake and Def Leppard are being played on a boat with an American flag. We are part of the beach trash: a funfair of neon costumes and bright orange, yellow and pink hats.
Waiting for our pick up I look around the group. On welcome night the guides gave out grey wife beater vest tops with two different iterations of the SwimTrek logo on them. ‘Who,’ a few eyebrows had seemed to question, ‘is ever going to wear those?’
As it turns out, almost all of us: there are seven grey vests and a few SwimTrek t-shirts being worn right now, a family uniform. You could argue it’s because they’re so easy to put over wet swim gear, or because no one cares if they get covered in sun cream. But I think it’s deeper than that: I think we end up wearing the tops because swimming connects you to your fashion-unfussy feral under-self. We’re not striving to be anyone, there is no effort, no front and no ‘show’. We’re experiencing, as a group, the kind of barrier-free, pretence-free relaxation more commonly felt at home with your family.
And that’s when we get back to the ranch and walk down to the river the mustangs visit for one final swim, swirling around in the eddy, going upstream and downstream.
After the swim we trail back, dripping and drying simultaneously in the heat, flip-flopping back to the ranch. Then it’s one last step into what we’ve come to know as the ‘kidnap van’ (big, black, smoked windows) and we’re off the airport and heading for home. There’s a lot of hugging and kissing. This is the SwimTrek effect. The magic that they create but that it’s impossible to manufacture: the alchemy of groups of people when you let them roam in water.
At the start of the trip we were a random group of people. But now we are bonded. 14 swimmers with one common heart: a deep love of the water, and a shared experience so good and so vivid that wherever we go, we’ll always have Arizona.
Kate Rew holidayed with Swimtrek
An edited version of this article appeared in 1843 Magazine